Making of the Nations of Europe:
A Socio-Semiotic Study
It is certainly clear that neither the seventeenth- nor the twentieth-century manuscript quarrels had much to do with the vellums as artifacts. It was not the physical objects as such that were really sought. In the seventeenth century, it was generally their textual content which was so uniquely desirable; for in them each of the Scandinavian kingdoms expected to find precious historical information that could reinforce its claim to greatness and power. Similarly, in our century, reclaiming the manuscripts meant, for the Icelanders, the ultimate stage in legitimizing and confirming their national independence. It seems evident that in both periods, the heated quarrels touched deep feelings of self-identity, or more precisely, of "collective identity."
This story, although singular in its details, is not unique as a manifestation of socio-semiotic structures. On the contrary, it is a magnificent illustration, as this paper attempts to show, of the function of literature in the making of many nations, and other culturally-organized groups, in Europe. In this sense it may, however, be a phenomenon that is peculiar to European history.
Is "literature" in this sense in fact unique to Europe? This is not an easy question. There are perhaps no known organized societies which do not have some sort of "literature," or in other words, an activity during which texts are recited or read, to or by their members, either publicly or privately. It is true, however, that certain societies have had a reputation which would seem to make them more qualified than others to create and transmit such texts. For instance, in the Medieval Middle East, Arabs were considered to be "gifted" in respect to this occupation, as it were "by birth," while in Northern Europe, it was the Icelanders who were taken to be "born" writers and story-tellers.